Priyanka Chopra was confronted at a beauty convention over a tweet about India. Calls to boycott Mulan were issued after the movie’s lead actor, Crystal Liu Yifei, backed Hong Kong police in a public post on Weibo, China’s main social media platform.
Comedian Jon Stewart made headlines after his testimony in Congress slamming lawmakers for lack of action on 9/11 victim funding. Angelina Jolie was asked to comment on the massive fires burning the Amazon rainforest at a Disney convention this past weekend.
Celebrities routinely make headlines when they make public their opinion on issues. And we likely pay attention because it’s a way for people to enter a discussion on those very issues and to relate to something larger than themselves, experts say.
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According to Lorraine York, a professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University, celebrities allow us to “debate ideas using the celebrity as a form of proxy.”
“Discussing Priyanka Chopra’s tweets about the Indian army is a means of having an entry point to a discussion of this political moment in India and Kashmir,” York explained in an email interview. “Celebrities often allow us a foothold into those larger discussions.”
“So it’s ironic, I think, and slightly off the mark, to suggest that it’s always or necessarily superficial to discuss celebrity politics.”
Chopra, a UNICEF ambassador, faced calls to be stripped of her goodwill ambassador status. Pakistan’s federal minister for human rights wrote a letter to UNICEF’s executive director, requesting Chopra be “immediately denotified” from the position.
Later, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said goodwill ambassadors “retain the right to speak about issues that interest or concern them” when speaking in a personal capacity, according to the Times of India.
Celebrities as UNICEF ambassadors
UNICEF ambassadorships themselves are the subject of “an intense debate” on the “larger question of celebrity activism,” said York.
“They’re a long-standing tradition, going back to Danny Kaye’s appointment in the ‘50s, and reaching up to Stranger Things’s Milly Bobby Brown’s appointment last year,” she wrote.
“On one hand, the rationale for their existence is that they have the ability to draw attention to worthy causes (think: Amal Clooney),” York said in her email. “On the other hand, critics argue that the position becomes a way for celebrities to reinforce their fame, and establish their political claims to expertise and caring.”
The question for York then becomes “what people, what issues, what causes go unnoticed because they don’t have a celebrity spokesperson attached to them?”
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Possible to remain silent as a celebrity?
Another question that arises is whether it’s possible to stay silent as a celebrity today.
York points out that celebrities can choose to remain silent, but “political meanings will be read into that choice.”
She brings up the example of “the long political silence” of singer Taylor Swift — a silence that was “only fairly recently broken.”
Swift’s silence was “read widely as a support for Republican politics,” York said.
“In my view, all celebrities are political insofar as they are public individuals,” she said. Just the fact that they are people “deemed of interest to a broader public makes them inherently political.”
Not superficial by default
People discussing celebrity advocacy and activism is neither a new phenomenon nor one that will stop “anytime soon,” according to York.
Celebrity activism has the “potential to make us sharper, maybe more critical assessors of political speech,” she said.
And it would be a “mistake” to knock down such discussions, which can be “as superficial or as probing as any political discussion in various media,” York said.
“We mustn’t ignore the way in which celebrity figures have been and continue to be inspiring figures for equity-seeking groups in particular,” she added, citing the case of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick.
“We want to be very careful when we assume that all celebrity is superficial or about ‘nothing.'”
Mark Harvey — a professor at the University of Saint Mary and author of a book called Celebrity Influence — finds that people care about celebrity opinions because of a “desire to associate with something more exciting than themselves.”
“The same reason we read books, the same reason we go to movies,” he said in a recent interview. “Sometimes there are certain celebrities that we identify with for whatever reason.”
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In his research, he has studied the perception of the credibility of celebrities against major American politicians on political issues such as trade policy or the environment.
“What I found is that there were some issues where the politicians were more credible, but on most of them there wasn’t a statistically significant difference between who was more credible and who wasn’t,” Harvey said. “Which means that people look at them interchangeably. And there were a number of issues where celebrities just were hands down way more credible on certain issues.”
For instance, on LGBTQ issues, “Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John were far more credible,” he said.
Earlier this month, actor Jameela Jamil had to issue a tweet firmly stating that she is leaving the issue of Kashmir to experts: “I’m sick at home and can’t be bothered to tweet any further. This is my last word on the pressure mounting on us to speak publicly about #kashmir please feel free to unfollow me if you have an issue with my stance of not speaking out further. I’m leaving this to experts.”
This was after she tweeted about the public pressure on her to speak out about Kashmir.
“Many keep asking me to discuss the deeply unsettling situation in Kashmir,” Jamil tweeted. “But I can’t, because I’m not from there, I’ve never been there, I have no family there … I have too big of a platform to say something, just to say something.”
Harvey said he finds Jamil’s words are “rather a brave thing to say.”
“Somebody asks you a question and you don’t know the answer to the question, it’s a brave thing to say: ‘I don’t know. Let’s go find out,’” he said.
Jamil’s tweets are “a case in point of the supposedly non-political being read as political,” York said.
It’s not a new phenomenon, she added.
“There’s always been pressure on public figures to declare political positions (eg. in Shakespeare’s day),” York wrote. ‘But what has changed is the rapidly shareable, broad-based digital media that broadcasts their views rapidly.”
— With files by Reuters, Jesse Ferreras and Rachael D’Amore.